TOKYO • Japan could legally intercept a North Korean missile headed towards Guam, Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said in remarks reported by Kyodo news service.
Mr Onodera told a committee of Parliament's Lower House yesterday that Japan would be allowed to hit a missile headed towards the US Pacific territory if it was judged to be an existential threat to Japan, Kyodo said. This is a reiteration of the Japanese government's position.
North Korea first fired a missile over Japan in 1998, prompting the Japanese government to initiate its current ballistic missile defence system with the US. While a second attempt failed in 2005, North Korea again succeeded in launching one in 2009 that flew over northern Japan and continued for another 3,000km before landing in the Pacific.
More recently, North Korean missiles have landed in the Sea of Japan, with some falling in Japan's exclusive economic zone that stretches as far as 200 nautical miles from its shores.
Japan passed legislation two years ago allowing it to come to the aid of another country in certain circumstances, under a reinterpretation of its pacifist Constitution. Mr Onodera told Parliament that an attack on Guam would fall under that legislation because of its importance to Japan's own defence.
But it is unclear if Japan could shoot down a missile heading to Guam, according to Mr Lance Gatling, president of Nexial Research, an aerospace consultancy in Tokyo. "My initial impression would be, not really," he said. "A ballistic missile going to Guam is flying very high, going very fast and accelerating by the time it is over Japan. Without prior knowledge that it is coming, you are reduced to chasing it, which is a great disadvantage."
A willingness to shoot down the missile was a politically important move in the relationship between the two allies, Mr Gatling said, adding that Japan might be better placed to provide data to help the United States track the missile.
Japan has a two-layered ballistic missile defence system, consisting of ship-based SM-3 interceptors, which are intended to shoot down missiles outside the Earth's atmosphere, and land-based Patriot interceptors, which are designed to intercept them in the final stage of their trajectory. It is also looking into the possibility of adding a third missile defence element.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also underscored the importance of the alliance, which he said would be further strengthened through a meeting between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis and their Japanese counterparts in Washington next week.
He told reporters: "North Korea's provocative actions, including on this occasion, are a clear threat to the region and the international community, and can absolutely not be tolerated."
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North Korea's state media warns of missile strike on Guam. str.sg/4Kgp